Scotland and Nature Religion
Scotland and Nature Religion, the Faeries and Vernacular Work Rhythms
This page comprises contributions by Alastair McIntosh to The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature (2 volumes), Jeffrey Kaplan & Bron Taylor eds., Continuum International Publishing, London & NY, 2005.
As the glaciers of the last ice age finally left Scotland as a bare and empty landscape about 10,000 years ago, pioneer species such as hazel and birch started to re-colonize the land, the now-extinct wolf, bear and lynx returned, and people resettled (Edwards & Ralston 2003). These people left their mark in megalithic structures typically erected some 5,000 years ago, such as the lunar-aligned Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis. Such monuments are often found in beautiful places. Some probably had astronomical and ritual functions. Little can be said about this with certainty, but one claim that can be made without question is that they represent art. As such, the ancient sites have been described as “the longest show running”; a doorway to the imaginal realm where nature and the imagination intersect. The standing stones accordingly testify to a tripartite link between community, spirit and place and, as such, in all probability, to the early presence of nature religion – namely, the understanding that the spiritual realm interpenetrates and animates the natural world.
Scotland’s original Pictish inhabitants may have had a matrilineal structure, but little is confidently known about them. The Romans were largely kept out of Scotland; they built two defensive walls to keep the Picts back. According to Tacitus’ Agricola (ca. 98 CE), the Pictish chieftain Calgacus said of the Romans:
During the second half of the first millennium the Scots of Dalriada, originating from Ireland and speaking Gaelic, subsumed whatever had gone before with patriarchal chieftain structures based around the extended family or “clan.” Irish-Scots Celtic monasticism, resting on a Druidic “Celtic Old Testament” base, embodied a rich nature spirituality.
These Irish roots were later used to assert, before the Pope, Scotland’s claim of right to be a nation free of Anglo-Norman suzerainty. English invaders based their claim to control Scotland on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “translation” of the Historia Regum Britanniae of 1135 – parts of which were probably Geoffrey’s own creation, as he later claimed to have lost the original manuscript. The Historia maintained that Britain was named after Brutus of Troy who had arrived in the 12th century B.C.E. after pillaging France and Africa, inspired by an oracular mandate to dominate “the round circle of the whole earth.” Geoffrey claimed Brutus had cleared Scotland or “Albany” of Picts and giants, giving it to his youngest son, Albanactus.
During the Wars of Independence (1296-1424) with England, Edward I used this myth to legitimatize his colonizing conquest of Scotland. As embellished in the Hollywood movie, Braveheart, William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce drove the English out. However, to consolidate Scotland’s free status they required Papal recognition. This was achieved through the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320, a remarkable document that drew on Irish charter texts to trounce Geoffrey’s Brutus myth (Ferguson 1998).
Declaration links Scottish origins to ancient Scythia by the Black Sea, as
described, for example, in the Irish Book of Invasions (ca. 1168 in final form).
This portrays the Scots coming from Scythia to assist Nimrod with
building the Tower of Babel, their leader learning all 72 languages of the world
after its fall, his being summoned as Pharaoh’s linguist whilst the Israelites
were still in slavery, his marrying Pharaoh’s daughter (“Scota,” hence
“Scotland,” implying that the Mother of the Nation was black), his
reconstructing Gaelic from the 72 languages (hence Gaelic’s sometime
designation, “the language of Eden,”), his people providing the Israelites
with bread and wine on the eve of their Red Sea departure, and then later,
having received Moses’ blessing, completing a 440 year-long migration via
Spain to Ireland, and from there, according to the Scotichronicon’s account
(ca. 1449), on to Scotland, bringing as proof of their peregrinations the Stone
of Destiny – Jacob’s pillow from the original Genesis 28 version of Stairway
to Heaven. Scottish nationhood is
thereby symbolized by a holy stone, returned in 1996 from Westminster Abbey to
Edinburgh Castle. This axis
mundi stone, we might note, originally symbolized the connection
between Heaven and the land that Jacob was given; and that in a context where
God pronounced blessing on all the world’s peoples.
Revealingly, the Declaration of Arbroath locates sovereignty of the Scottish people not in the sovereign, but in the “Community of the Realm” which is “the community of Scotland.” As such, and consistent with the principle that only God can own the land (Leviticus 25), Scotland had a King or “Queen of Scots” as distinct from a “Queen of Scotland.” Resonant with the spirit of Calgacus, the Declaration asserts, “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself” (Scottish Records Office, 1320). And whilst Scotland might have had its “Auld Enemy” in the English, the importance of loving the enemy was constitutionally embedded in the Declaration’s modification of Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), asserting that under “the Church of God,” there is “neither weighting nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman.” Thus Scottish identity is generally considered to be civic rather than ethnic: at its best, a person belongs inasmuch as they are willing to cherish, and be cherished, by a place and its peoples.
Whilst the nobles of Scotland as the medieval signatories to the Declaration looked to Rome (and successfully so) for recognition of national sovereignty, the Scots Reformation parliament of 1560 repudiated Rome. Protestants saw late medieval Catholicism as having been lax to the point of almost being “pagan.” It is perhaps to the imperative of asserting narrow puritanical rectitude in order to give boundary and faith-based justification to spiritual revolution that we can trace the origins of the neglect, and even fear, of both nature religion and mysticism that has characterized much mainstream Reformed church religious discourse in Scotland through until the late twentieth century.
That said, John Calvin, the benchmark of Scots Presbyterian Protestantism, was not averse to the love of nature. His Institutes (III:XIV:20) speak of the Creation as that “beautiful theatre” in which we might do well “to take pious delight.” Similarly, the formative 1647 Westminster Shorter Catechism affirms that “God executeth His decrees in the works of Creation and Providence.”
However, the 17th century, under James VI, who became James I of a “United Kingdom” with England in 1603, saw organized religion applied as an instrument of inner (psychological) and internal (within the British Isles) colonization. As with James’ policy in Ulster, muscular Protestantism was indoctrinated thorough, for example, his 1609 Statutes of Iona and in the 1616 education act. These helped to propagate a Protestant ethic of transcendental deferred gratification such as Max Weber would have recognized as the hallmark of the early-modern mindset.
In Ulster, James’ policies wronged the indigenous Catholics and wrong-footed the poor Scots Protestants who he “planted” there. In Scotland, the underlying imperial and mercantile ethic of his polices attacked indigenous bardic politics and laid the ground for the 1707 Union of Parliaments, by which Great Britain emerged as the world’s foremost exemplar of neo-Roman presumptions of Empire. Following the Jacobite uprising of 1745, British forces in the Battle of Culloden near Inverness (1746) crushed clan power, and key markers of indigenous culture such as the wearing of the tartan kilt were proscribed. Robert Burns, the national bard, was to say of this era in his poem, Strathallan’s Lament written in 1787: “The wide world is all before us/ but a world without a friend.”
With the indigenous leadership now either compulsorily Anglicised or crushed in the remote Highland centers of resistance, land became valued as a commodity rather than for the number of people it could support. Improved breeds of sheep, and demand for wool from the Napoleonic wars, triggered the “Highland Clearances” in which perhaps some half-a-million people were directly, or indirectly from economic pressure, forced off their native territories until the passing of the Crofters Act in 1886. Ironically, displaced indigenous Scots often colonized other native people’s territories, the oppressed in some cases becoming oppressor. Much of rural Scotland became, in effect, one of the world’s first casualties of what would now be called “globalization.”
with the famine in Ireland, many ordinary pious peasants internalized their
oppression as punishment from God. At
Croick, a congregation huddled in the
Accordingly, the oppressed were, to the landlord’s convenience, encouraged to write the world off rather than to discern and seek to redeem it. In any case, Calvin’s double-predestination suggested that, ultimately, destiny fell outside of human control. It was mainly to break with patronage under the influence of an emerging liberation theology that the Church of Scotland split in the 1843 “Disruption.” In an effort, not always successful, to embody spiritual freedom, the Free Church of Scotland emerged as a more truly Presbyterian or grassroots alternative that recognized the authority of “Christ as Lord” unmediated by any landlord. One of the Disruption’s practical consequences was to give spiritual legitimatization to the land reforms that took place at the cusp of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries, and which preserved agrarian “crofting” communities.
Amongst the peasantry a strong nature religion – expressed as awareness of the mmanence of God and through supernatural belief and totemistic animism – is continuously evident. However, much of this has been caricatured as residually “Papist,” (as with most of Carmichael’s great nineteenth century collection, the Carmina Gadelica), or of the faerie faith, and therefore merely superstitious (as with the Rev. Robert Kirk’s 17th century Secret Commonwealth). Recent work, such as that of the American Gaelic scholar, Michael Newton, and the Scots historian, James Hunter, reflects a continuous close engagement between people and nature expressed in the bardic tradition often outside of or on the margins of the mainstream church. As a generalization, this represents human society as resting on the bedrock of ecological community under the Providence of God. Nature transfigures humankind in a grounded transcendence, thus the motto of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides is “God’s Providence is our inheritance,” and the great twentieth century Gaelic poet, Sorley MacLean, writes in An Cuilithionn (The Cuillin): “Beyond the lochs of the blood of the children of men/ beyond the frailty of plain and the labor of the mountain . . . / beyond guilt and defilement; watchful/ heroic, the Cuillin is seen/ rising on the other side of sorrow” (in Hunter 1995, p. 175).
In the late twentieth century, a few activists, including the present author, used the above analysis of history in an effort to reintegrate nature, spirituality and a bardic politics in the public life of a Scotland developing a “devolved” or semi-detached relationship with the rest of the “United Kingdom.” The Isle of Eigg Trust, established in 1991, successfully enabled the residents of a Hebridean island to revolt and rid itself of its landlord and establish a democratic community land trust. This in turn helped stimulate flagship land reform legislation in the Scottish Parliament, which was re-established in 1999.
Similarly, when the Isle of Harris was threatened by multinationals wanting to make it a center for European production of roadstone with perhaps two massive “superquarries,” theological testimony against violating the integrity of the Creation was made by a panel that included Scotland’s leading Calvinist, the Rev. Professor Donald Macleod, and the then warrior chief of the Mi’Kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia, a Sacred Pipe Carrier.
Attention was drawn in the public inquiry through the Mi’Kmaq testimony to the need for “defense of Mother Earth.” Scripture passages such as Genesis 2:15, Proverbs 8, Job 38 and Romans 8 were invoked to argue that it is not Creation that is fallen (and therefore treated as fit to have its National Scenic Areas ravished), but humankind. Professor Macleod noted that the function of the Creation is to reflect the majesty of God and that “to spoil the creation is to disable it from performing this function [giving rise to] the consideration that rape of the environment is rape of the community itself” (in McIntosh 2001, p. 234). Accordingly, the present writer concluded, an appropriate relationship with nature is one of reverence. This is not pantheism – God as nature – but it should be understood as, panentheism – God being present in the Creation as, for example, in Job or Hebrews 1:3.
The Scottish Government that, in the previous year, had abolished feudalism, rejected the superquarry in 2000. The “harriers of the world” may hover yet in the guise of globalization, but the spirit of Calgacus, increasingly expressed through nonviolent direct action, remains strong in fighting, as Tacitus described it, “desecration and the contamination of tyranny: here at the world’s end.”
Alexander. Carmina Gadelica. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1994 (1900).
Kevin J. & Ralston, Ian B. M. (eds.). Scotland After the Ice Age:
Environment, Archaeology and History, 8000 BC – AD 1000. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
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University Press, 1998.
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Highlands. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1995.
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Kenneth H. A Celtic Miscellany. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1971.
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versus Corporate Power. London: Aurum Press, 2001.
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Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania. London: Penguin Classics, 1970.
Faerie Faith in Scotland (pp. 633 - 634, including a synopsis of the Rotting Tree Faerie account as told in full elsewhere on this website)
Beneath formalized religious structures of many societies rests a bedrock or vestige of nature religion. In Scotland and other Celtic countries, faerielore fulfils this quasi-totemic function. The literary representation of the faeries as winged “little people” is largely a Victorian British development. Kipling’s “Puck of Pook’s Hill” maintains he was the last faerie (or fairy) in England, so a measure of reinvention may have been justified. Nineteenth-century artists like Joseph Noel Paton (National Gallery of Scotland) found inspiration in the “fairy faith” for rich erotic sublimation that might otherwise, with more worldly muses, have shocked Victorian sensibilities.
Traditionally faeries could vary in size from the miniscule to the superhuman. R.H. Cromek, in an ethnographic account, describes those of southwest Scotland as,
Irish legends, also influential in Gaelic Scotland, portrayed the faeries as aboriginals who were driven into hollow hills – knowes, raths or forts – when iron-age humankind conquered with tree-felling axes. As such, faerie faith conveys a submerged Arcadian or idyllic green consciousness. Various Scottish tales account for the faeries as those angels who were too good to follow Lucifer all the way to Hell, but not good enough to remain in Heaven. In The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (ca. 1690), the Rev. Robert Kirk documented Gaelic beliefs and provided a Biblical underpinning. The faeries, Kirk believed, are a species of Creation that, like humankind, also await salvation.
Care must be taken not to offend these daoine sìthe – the “people of peace.” They can cause mishaps and even replace healthy human children with sickly, troublesome, faerie “changelings,” thereby perhaps conveniently allowing blame for genetic misfortune or parental neglect to be displaced. This has diminished the esteem in which the “gentle folk” might otherwise be held. But W. B. Yeats in The Celtic Twilight, first published in 1893, makes impassioned “remonstrance with Scotsmen for having soured the disposition of their ghosts and faeries” (1990, p. 92-95). Scots, he says here, have been “too theological, too gloomy”. In contrast, he continues, the Irish “exchange civilities with the world beyond,” and are accordingly more richly blessed.
In recent years some such “Twilightist” sentiments, boosted by New Age and green mystical seeking, have been attacked as inventive romanticism by such “Celtosceptic” scholars as Professor Donald E. Meek, who holds a chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University. Meek's concern is with cultural appropriation, invasion and distortion, and whilst anger about this would be shared by many Gaelic thinkers, views of what is genuinely traditional, or authentically evolving, vary, and some thinkers understandably feel divided within themselves on such shifting numinous ground within the cultural psyche. The Faerie Hill is, suggests Gaelic scholar John MacInnes, “a metaphor of the imagination” (1997: pers. com.); a liminal and imaginary realm, where musicians or poets would fall asleep, accepting they would awake either mad, or inspired. As such the faeries may represent the interface of natural and human creativity: nature personified, true nature’s child born to be wild and perhaps being reborn in the nascent green consciousness of our times.
“Yes, about the fairies and all that . . . They say they are here for a century and away for another century. This is their century away”. So said Nan MacKinnon, tradition bearer of the Hebridean Isle of Vatersay, interviewed for the Scottish studies journal, Tocher (6:38, 1983, p. 9). She said it in 1981!
W. Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic
NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1994.
F. Marian. The Silver Bough: Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief. Edinburgh:
Canongate Classics, 1989.
John. “Looking at Legends of the Supernatural.” Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness LIX
Donald E. The Quest for Celtic
Christianity. Handsel Press: Edinburgh, 2000.
W. B.. The Celtic Twilight. Bridport: Prism Press, 1990 (1893).
Ivan Illich (1981) has drawn attention to the “vernacular” as those practices and values that, like our vernacular (or native) tongue, are learned in family and community by oft-unconscious processes of social osmosis rather than through formal schooling. It is striking that vernacular activity in the satisfaction of fundamental human needs is typically rich in synergistic layers of meaning (Max-Neef 1992). Indeed, as development practitioners and “modernizers” have discovered to their cost, it is often the case in vernacular communities that “implicit meanings of local practices” will outweigh the superficially presenting reason for doing things in a particular way. For example, stories abound in Africa of newly installed water pumps being broken by young men. Only then was it realized that having the young women walk to the distant well was an implicit but unspoken opportunity for courtship.
One of the most striking characteristics of much vernacular work is its relationship to rhythm – both as an outcome (for example, in work song), and as an organizing principle aiding the process. This emerges, for example, in walking, rowing, riding, cycling, milking, weaving, spinning, pounding corn, hauling on anchor chains, ropes and fishing lines, casting with a fishing rod, making music, repartee in discourse, varying forms of intercourse, rocking the baby, and in reaping with sickle or scythe.
The ability to “enter into the swing of things” in work, as in sport, is commonly the touchstone of right technique. Chant, song or dance, often in unison with co-workers, may be concomitant to such an extent that some cultures have built up considerable bodies of work-related folk song. These are songs not necessarily about work, but rather, embodying the rhythm of work. Thus, for example, the American-born Scottish ethnomusicologist, Margaret Fay Shaw, says of the weaving of Harris Tweed fabric in the 1930’s: “Those were the days when a wearer could regard his homespun from the Hebrides with the thought of the songs and gaiety that went into the making of it” (Shaw, 1986, p. 7).
The wielding of a scythe – a sickle mounted on a frame to allow full body engagement in harvesting grass and grain crops - is a paramount example of rhythmic vernacular work, and one that is currently generating fresh interest for its Zen-like meditative nature. In his seminal work, The Scythe Book, David Tresemer refers to the obviating effect of rhythm and resultant work song on the passing of time, maintaining that, “The main function of these chants and charms and songs was to coordinate the breath and scythe stroke and to ‘deceive the tedious time. And steal unfelt the sultry hours away’” (p. 60). He sees this phenomenon as being spiritually transcendent, thus concluding his treatise with the paragraph:
In The Scythe Must Dance, a technical addendum to the Second Edition of Tresemer’s work and widely cited on the Internet, Peter Vido likens the correct swing of the scythe to “The practice of T’ai-Chi Chuan, with its emphasis on the executing of smooth motions and while in a reflective state of mind, it is a beautiful – even if idealistic – model” (ibid. p. 169). He too, in his closing paragraph, transcendentally elevates the art, quoting a school essay by eighteen-year-old Hannah Sawyer of Kingfield, Maine. She writes:
Scything is simple; it is relaxing too. It is no wonder the people of yesteryear had very little problem with stress. The quiet rhythm melts away tension; swish, cut, swish, cut, swish… If I close my eyes it is easy to imagine myself back in time – a bird singing to the sky, the wind whispering to the trees, the splash of a horse pawing the water, the lowing of a cow calling her calf. Would you like to time-travel? I’ll teach you how.” (ibid. p. 181).
I myself grew up on the Isle of Lewis off Scotland, knowing how to hone and handle a scythe for the making of hay and silage to feed our cow. I observe that, today, it has become a near-extinct and hard-to-get tool, driven out by the hegemony of the “strimmer” – the name given in Britain to pernicious petroleum-powered pestilences with rotating nylon whiplashes that brash the grass. Walk a meadow or woodland path that has been strimmed, and you step amongst the scrappy carnage of flayed vegetation and scuffed ground. By contrast, tread a scythed path, and the vegetation is cleanly cut and laid to the side in pleasing swathes that avoid messing one’s footwear. Rarely is the turf damaged because, as the Thai Buddhist Monk Ticht Nhat Hanh puts it in a quotation at the leading website dedicated to the Art, “Whenever I see anyone cutting grass with a scythe, I know he is practicing awareness.” Indeed, it was a personal meditation on strimmed versus scythed meadow paths in Scotland that inspired me with “The Scyther’s Prayer”: May my death be the clean cut of an honest scythe, and never the thousand lashes of an accursed strimmer!
Time and death wield a scythe because harvesting is both the fulfillment, and the transcendence, of them both. As Sir James Fraser suggested in The Golden Bough (1994), the practice of reaping connects humankind with the Corn God or the King of the Woods, and with the Earth Goddess. It is back into Her sacred body, the Earth, that the sky god or King seasonally meets his nemesis, as at Diana’s Grove of Nemi. To consciously reap the life force (which can be symbolized by mistletoe or the “Golden Bough”) with a hand sickle or scythe is therefore to participate in the perpetual archetypal cycle of life, death and rebirth.
To Frazer, this insight connected the Christian story with a much wider body of world mythology. As he concludes his seminal if professionally controversial and much-disputed yet remarkable work:
Frazer’s work may have fallen on stony ground when the relationship between Christianity and fertility became a shunned field of study. Nonetheless, it cannot escape notice that in the Last Supper before His “Passion”, Christ, the Mahavatan embodiment of God incarnate (and so carnal), offers bread – risen from reaped corn - in memory of eternal communion with His body. The spirituality implicit in the Biblical Song of Solomon, Proverbs 8, Luke 7 and Matthew 11 thereby finds conjugal fulfillment in this “feast of love”, this “communion of the saints”, that realizes Heaven as the fulfillment of the erotic.
Alastair McIntosh with his scythe on the Isle of Lewis, 2003
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: A History of Myth and Religion. London: Chancellor Press, 1994 (originally 1890).
Illich, Ivan. Shadow Work: Vernacular Values Examined. UK: Open Forum, 1981.
Max-Neef, Manfred. “Development and Human Needs” in Paul Ekins and Manfred Max-Neef. Real-Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation. London: Routledge, 1992, 197-214.
Shaw, Margaret Fay. Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986.
Tresemer, David. The Scythe Book (With an Addendum on the Practical Use of the Scythe by Peter Vido). Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Co. Inc, 2002 (2nd edn.). See also www.scytheconnection.com .
19 May 2005